friday, 11 november 2005 ~ 8:28 p.m.
25 University Avenue ~ The Basement
Bonobos are the only other primates who do it face to face. Females dominate bonobo society and copulation is diplomacy in its ideal form. Promiscuity means peace.
But that's bonobos. Is it a mistake to invite a man to one's house on the first date?
"Oh, well," Lucy says aloud, smiling vaguely as she raises her wrist to her nose for another sniff of her new perfume. A DNA sequence, collected last summer from the wing of a Painted Lady, scrolls down her computer screen at a dizzying speed.
Too late now: the doorbell's ringing. She reaches for her inhaler, gives it a shake, and takes a puff on her way up the stairs, stashing it in the mail table drawer on her way to the door.
The Front Walk
Long before his chance encounter with its owner in the 600 section of the university library, Gray knew the Queen Anne at 25 University Avenue as the house that changes colors. The siding is a peculiar shade of yellow that turns a dusty sap-green under the light of the streetlamp. The house is yellow in the morning on his way to campus and green on his walk home. The old carriage house, with its padlocked doors and grimy octagonal windows, gives him the willies no matter the hour.
As he comes up the front walk for the first time, he sees that the house is in a worse state of repair than he had discerned from the curb. Not shabby, exactly--not yet--but the front yard has the disconsolate air of a home that no longer merits a write-up in Better Homes and Gardens. There's a widow's walk along the western side he'd never noticed before, a curious feature considering the sea is a full hour's drive away.
The porch lamp is on, but there's no light coming through the fanlight above the door. Stained-glass panels flank the doorway, but he can barely make out their design: angels, he supposes. Three sets of wings apiece. Seraphim?
He rings the bell three times before she answers it, and in the meantime he can hear the chime echoing through the hall. "Sorry," she says, shivering at the gust of cold air that accompanies his entrance. "I was in the basement." He hands her the bottle of Cusumano and Lucy says, "How thoughtful--I love Sicilian wine--thanks ever so much."
Strung on a delicate silver chain, a diamond of fair size glitters in the hollow of her throat, and the candle on the hall table softens the sharp edges of her profile. She'd seemed somewhat plain under the harsh fluorescent lights at the library, but in her own home, slipped into something made of satin and three times as old as she is, Lucy is altogether lovely. He watches the gooseflesh fade from her arms as she hangs his coat in a closet to the right of the entryway. An ancient deerstalker cap hangs on the door hook.
The house appears cavernous on the inside, probably because most of the lights are turned off. A tableau of family portraits, most of them in black and white, eyes him from high on the foyer walls, and a genealogical tree in careful calligraphy hangs above the hall table. Through an open door to his left he hears Billie Holiday singing "There Is No Greater Love."
Every time she leaves a room she flicks a switch. "We're big on conservation in this house," she tells him.
Other photographs line an arched hallway into the kitchen: wedding parties and engagement portraits, mostly; a few family-reunion shots with three or four dozen people crowded into the frame; and a smattering of baby pictures, all of them too old to be hers.
She flips on the kitchen light and dons a quilted baking mitt. A ceramic salad bowl on the granite countertop brims with spinach and crumbled feta cheese. The oven speaks in a jolly bass: "Lucy-bear, I believe the cookies are ready." He laughs.
"That's my dad." She opens the oven door and examines a tray of chicken fillets (cooked in lemon and rosemary, by the smell of it).
"That oven must be state-of-the-art."
"Because it talks?" She laughs. "Nah, my dad was just handy that way. He added an audio chip to the timer." The chicken sizzles gorgeously as she pulls the tray out of the oven and assembles the side dishes on the dumbwaiter. "He'd let me bake on my own when I was small, but then I'd always end up engrossed in a book and burn everything."
"That's why I don't cook."
"Not at all?"
"Well, some," he says, "but let's just say Julia Child would be horrified."
She looks at him, stricken. "You aren't a vegetarian, are you?" He shakes his head. "Oh, good," she says. "I suppose I should have asked."
He picks up the salad bowl and follows her through a swinging door into the dining room, then gasps at what he finds: a great stone fireplace, wide as an altar; a cathedral ceiling; a trio of seven-foot stained-glass windows--eating in here will feel like going to church. Two places have been set at the end of a long mahogany table, in itself the length of a good-sized house. Through speakers mounted on the wall above a large china cabinet comes the last line of the Billie Holiday song. Along the sideboard there is a row of crystal decanters, each filled with a fluorescent liquid. Incredulous, he sets the bowl down and approaches the bar. "Is that . . . absinthe?"
"I put food coloring in the gin. It was too old to drink, anyway."
"I take it you don't drink much." He runs his hand over an inscription carved in the stone mantelpiece: MEMENTO MORI, SED COMMORABOR.
"Clever," he murmurs.
"My great-great-grandfather chose it. He built the house," she says as she lifts the door on the dumbwaiter and sets a bowl of garlic mashed potatoes on the table.
He stands behind his chair with his hands in the pockets of his corduroy pants. "This is a beautiful dinner. I didn't expect you to go to so much trouble."
Smiling, she uncorks the wine in one swift motion and fills two long-stemmed glasses the size of soup bowls. "It wasn't any trouble. Sit, won't you?"
On the wall opposite the windows is another row of black-and-white photographs. At first glance they seem chosen for artistic rather than sentimental value: street musicians, farmers' markets, and barefoot children picking dandelions on a grassy hill. "My grandmother took those," she says.
As he settles into his chair, Gray recalls he had delivered a lecture on the Roman household gods just that afternoon. Lare-s, the spirits of the dearly departed. Each family member was protected by the spirit of a certain ancestor, embodied in an ivory figurine kept on the household shrine. If you needed to pray, you'd hold your own protector in the palm of your hand.
"You haven't taken a bite," Lucy says after a minute. "What are you thinking of?"
Something older than Billie Holiday is playing now, a set of honey-sweet voices on a scratchy recording. "Do you have some sort of central sound system?"
"My father installed it. Why are you smiling like that?"
"I was just wondering what you do if someone in another room wants to listen to different music."
She shrugs. "There are never enough people around to disagree." He watches her eat, the light from the chandelier flashing off the ornate cutlery between her nimble fingers. There is a wide crescent moon at the base of each thumbnail. At the curve of her neckline two rust-colored pinpricks mar the shoulder seam, from an old safety pin left in the fabric too long. Lucy goes shopping in her own attic: tweed suits (of which she only ever wears the jacket or the skirt), silk dressing gowns, and lace-up boots (routinely polished but rarely worn). She will tell him she descends from a long line of pack rats.
Lucy catches him eyeing the white-gold wedding band she wears on her left ring finger. "It was my mother's." She pauses. "I hope you aren't a Freudian."
The Front Hall
Lucy has five boarders, male graduate students with acute vitamin D deficiencies and a shared predilection for heavy black clothing. They nod in tacit greeting as they pass him in the corridor, their long, pallid faces bobbing up and down in the semidarkness (and this produces an uncannily disembodied effect).
"Come on," she says, as the boarders disappear into the kitchen. The last of them turns in the doorway, briefly, eyeing Gray with curiosity. "We'll light a fire in the study."
"I'd like to have another look at your photographs," Gray says. Turning on the hall lamp with his free hand, he takes another sip of wine. After peering in at a tiny diptych curio of Joseph and Mary Anne Dearthing ("great-great," Lucy murmurs, her cheeks glowing with pleasure), he points to a picture of a dark-haired suffragist in Edwardian dress, her ballot poised above the slot. "This is amazing."
"My great-grandmother was the first woman in New Halcyon to cast a vote," Lucy says, "and she died a few years later. She and her sister-in-law cofounded a new suffrage party, to address the National Women's Party's failure to admit African-Americans. Alice Paul said they only wanted to turn it into a racial issue, but my great-grandmother called them all hypocrites. In public, no less." She smiles. "Am I boring you?"
"Not at all. You sound like a museum guide."
"So I am boring you."
"You're not boring me!"
There is another picture of importance beside it, an eight-year-old Lucy on her grandmother's lap. Her grandmother smiles at the camera, but Lucy looks away, as if there's something of greater interest elsewhere.
"Why don't you have any of your own baby pictures hanging up?"
She shrugs. "I always had some sort of rash devouring my face."
In the most ornate frame on the wall, a young couple poses atop the dome of some European cathedral. "Your great-grandparents?"
"My grandparents, actually. Mary and Teddy."
The honeymoon, no doubt. Smiling serenely, Lucy's grandmother rests her head on her husband's shoulder. "She must have been quite tall."
Lucy shakes her head, her eyes still on the photograph. "She was standing on something."
The date is written in the bottom right corner of the photograph. "Wow," he says. "My grandmother was born in 1929."
"We like to spread out the generations in this family," she says. "My mother didn't have me until she was forty."
He returns to the family tree done in careful calligraphy, confused by what seems to be the matrilineal inheritance of surnames. Then he notices that Morrigan is Lucy's middle name--she only uses it as her last. Does this anger her father much, or is he the sort of man who concedes to any feminazi laboring for the fall of the patriarchy?
Gray points to a picture of a young couple taken at a picnic. "Is this your dad?" She nods. Her father looks like a garden-variety eccentric: black-rimmed eyeglasses; somewhat emaciated, as though he found time to eat only on festive occasions like this; and a mop of thick dark curls he'd probably never combed through a day in his life. It's almost eerie, Lucy's resemblance to her mother.
But seeing as Lucy wears her wedding ring, he knows better than to ask. "Where is your father now?"
She pauses. "Do you remember that fire in the Kellman Building?"
Two years ago last month, four scientists had died in the basement laboratory. He remembers passing all the gaudy memorials on the quad, four ten-by-twelve university yearbook portraits in flimsy metal frames festooned with wilting pink and yellow carnations. "Your father was . . . ?"
Lucy turns out the lamp. "Thanks," she says, "but let's talk about something else."
In silence he takes in the floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes, the amaryllis growing in a blue crackleware pot on the windowsill behind the desk, the stone fireplace, and the sofa upholstered in crimson velvet. As Lucy closes the door behind them, he regards himself sadly in the large silver-framed mirror above the mantelpiece: he's too young for these wiry gray hairs sprouting at his temples, but not even the priciest hair dye could banish the avuncular air hanging about him these days.
Beneath the mirror is a small butterfly collection, a dozen specimens pinned to the board inside a glass case filmed with dust.
Setting her glass on the coffee table, she kneels before the hearth to turn the gas knob, and in a few seconds a fire burns cheerfully in the grate. In the far corner of the study there is an arched doorway leading into another lightless room. "What's through there?" he asks.
She settles onto the sofa. "A few drawing rooms, and then the great room. Nobody ever uses it, though."
"It's too big."
Five sets of footsteps fall heavily on the stairs as the boarders retreat to their bedrooms with their late-night snacks.
"How long have they lived here?"
"The boys? Only since September. Colin and Felix are doing their Ph.D.'s in philosophy and theology, Dewey is writing a thesis on the metaphysical poets, and Rob and Milo are each doing a master's in computer science." She pauses. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"I just find it a bit strange, you living in your family home with a bunch of guys."
"What's so strange about it? They needed a place to live, and I needed some extra cash."
"Is that so?"
"Keeping a house of this age and size isn't easy, or cheap. As it is, I'm not doing as much as I'd like, if I had the time." She pauses. "And come to think of it, I like having them around."
"I'm amazed you can keep them all straight."
"It's just the clothes they wear. They're all quite different despite their common purpose in life."
" 'Common purpose'?"
"They're a cult," she says, wineglass poised at her lips. "The Seventh Order of Saint Agatha."
"They look more like anarchists than religious zealots."
"As far as I can tell, they're a secular order. But they've all taken a vow of celibacy. I don't know, some sort of new-wave male purity movement."
He shakes his head. "Weird."
"Saint Agatha was a virgin martyr. Your old friends the Romans, they relieved her of her breasts."
Next to the butterfly collection is a photograph of Lucy in a blue commencement gown, beside her a stern-looking woman with a Sontag-like silver streak in her thick dark hair. "That's Megan," Lucy says. "My father's best friend. I work in her lab."
"What sort of research?"
"Right now we're testing a new drug for Huntington's. If it works as well as we hope, it should delay the onset of symptoms for at least a decade."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Mary Modern by Camille DeAngelis. Copyright © 2007 by Camille DeAngelis. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.